My mother’s grief is making our relationship toxic | Ask Annalisa Barbieri

You are not responsible for your mother. You have your own losses – and young children – to deal with

I am a woman in my late 30s, married with two small children with a rewarding and demanding career. I live some hours’ drive away from where I grew up and where my mum lives. I really love my life but I need some advice regarding my relationship with my mum.

My lovely dad died last year. He was much loved and I miss him a great deal, but he gave me so much over his lifetime that I am doing OK without him. My family has probably had more loss than most. One sister died before I was born, and another older sister in her early 30s.

My mum has called the loss of my dad the hardest of all – she says it compounds all the other losses (she was dealing fairly well with them all before his death). I love her very much but I feel responsible for her and guilty that I live so far away. She’s upset that we don’t live closer. She is in her mid-70s, in good health but always tired. She has an excellent friendship network, including great neighbours.

She wants to be thought of as helpful to me with the kids (but she isn’t really). I feel I have to tiptoe around her, validate her and let her critical comments go over my head. I often dread seeing her, but know I shouldn’t given I am all she has left. I feel very guilty about our relationship, but also powerless.

I feel I need to try harder, be kinder and more patient, but I really am trying my hardest and I do suspect that actually she is a bit angry with me and is pretty mean to me from time to time. I can’t win.

What a huge amount of loss you and your mother have suffered. I am so sorry. You are treading a very tight line and one a lot of readers will recognise, the one between retaining some sanity for yourself but being a “good enough” daughter. All while grieving.

Your mother probably has a lot of “caring” to give that is now fully focused in your direction; and I would guess she is actually quite scared to fully let herself care for you for fear of another loss, hence also being mean (this is not an excuse however). But you are not responsible for your mother. You have your own losses to deal with and you have young children and they are your priority. If you deplete yourself you won’t have very much left for yourself/your children.

I consulted clinical psychologist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist Poul Rohleder. He noted immediately the loss of a child born before you. “Maybe even as a baby you picked up an emotional atmosphere, that there was a grief you had to make better.” Babies are masters at picking up moods and non-verbal cues.

We wondered what growing up was like and if you felt the burden of making your mum happy, and if being with your mother [now] is possibly a reminder of the pain you want to get away from yourself?

Rohleder wondered how much your losses had been spoken of and how much your own grief “has been worked through. Sometimes it’s helpful to move away from pain but sometimes we have to face into it, and work through it.”

Have you and your mum (separately – Rohleder thought it was important for you to untangle your grief from your mum’s) looked into bereavement counselling? Perhaps if your mum had somewhere to “bring” her grief that would be one less thing for you to worry about.

I also wondered what you were looking for with your mum? Can you accept that some visits/conversations won’t be ideal? Do you feel that she will die if you don’t stay in touch? That’s a very “young” feeling – that if you abandon her or ignore her, she will suffer – and one you may have picked up as a child.

A few practical solutions: is there an adopt a granny scheme where you live? Could your mum get a pet – it sounds trite but can work wonders. I’d also like you to listen to this podcast I did on dealing with a difficult older parent which may help.

• Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa, please send your problem to Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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• The latest series of Annalisa’s podcast is available here.


Annalisa Barbieri

The GuardianTramp

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